In the early to mid-1970s, Playboy magazine was at the height of its popularity. Playboy Enterprises even had a record label, Playboy Records, whose artists represented genres from R&B to rock. In 1974, the label released Barbi Doll, the debut album by Playboy model Barbi Benton. It’s a quiet affair and a peek into a music scene such as may never again occur.
According to her profile on Playboy’s website, Benton got her start with Playboy Enterprises when she appeared in the television show Playboy After Dark. She began dating Hugh Hefner and went on to appear in three issues of the magazine in the early Seventies, then again in 1985. It was immediately after her appearance in the 1973 issue of Playboy that she released the first of four albums. She also appeared in movies and television, on shows from The Love Boat to Murder She Wrote. While I can’t recall ever seeing her, I almost certainly did on Hee Haw, on which she was a regular for four years.
The music on Barbi Doll is mostly straightforward country-and-Western. Guitar, bass and drum kit accompany Benton through simple tunes, with only occasional frills: fiddle, barroom piano and a slide for the electric guitar. The album is mostly composed of quiet songs, but there are a few tracks jaunty enough for kicking up your boots. The production is perfect, so warm you can’t help but imagine the musicians rubbing shoulders in the studio. Whatever has dominated country music the last few decades, this ain’t it.
The lyrics stick to love, loss and sex, but the sex is generally understated. Today, most pop stars sexualize themselves to the point of ridiculousness, but here is the sex symbol of her time, the Playboy model, playing it clean, if not entirely chaste. One notable exception is the raunchy “If You Can’t Do It, That’s All Right,” in which Benton demands that her man do it three times a night, and if he can’t, he should put his thing away and she’ll find someone who can. Sure, there’s more explicit lyrics today, but it’s enough to raise eyebrows and I wouldn’t want any more.
The lyricist of several songs was Shel Silverstein, better known as the author and illustrator of beloved classics for children such as The Giving Tree. When I was in the first grade not many years after this album was released, each student had to memorize a poem to recite, and I chose one from Silverstein’s magnum opus Where The Sidewalk Grows. I believe it was “Ourchestra,” about a guy who beats his belly for a drum and another guy who blows through his nose for a horn. My son is the same age now and gets a kick out of “Oops,” which is narrated by a boy hanging upside down from a tree limb. The poem only makes sense when read from bottom to top.
Silverstein flourishes his gift for words in “Queen of the Silver Dollar.” It’s a droll ditty with piano and fiddle that sounds like it belongs in an old Western film. The narrator is a barroom singer likening herself to a queen. The local dive is her castle, her scepter is a wine glass, and the men watching her are a bunch of jesters hoping to take her home. Benton plays this as if telling herself that leaving the country for the city was a step up in the world when underneath she suspects she has fallen from grace. An affecting tune, it has a bit of the sad glamour of Marilyn Monroe in River of No Return, albeit more jounce, and the exhaustion of Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles.
Benton does all of this with a lovely voice. It isn’t as instantly recognizable as Karen Carpenter’s or as powerful as Linda Ronstadt’s, but it has some of their charm and warmth. Her emotional range is especially impressive. She’s playful and sad, sultry and sincere, but always subtly. Even when she gets crass in “If You Can’t Do It, That’s All Right,” she sounds like a woman destined to topple into the karaoke machine at the end of the night with her pants around her ankles — but not until she’s had a few more drinks. Right now, the edge in her voice is just a warning.
To many, the Playboy life means high-rolling sleaze, but Hugh Heffner was once a philosopher advocating sexual revolution and recreational drugs on television to the likes of William F. Buckley Jr. He comes across as intelligent and forward-thinking — as well as problematic and creepy. Barbi Doll appears to come from the better side of the Playboy milieu. The cover is a head shot of Benton and the photographs on the back show scenes from the creation of the album: pianist Ron Oates giving Benton tips on her playing, Silverstein poring over lyrics with her, everyone sitting on the floor singing “Kum ba yah”-style. To anyone who has watched The Girls Next Door, the contrast is striking. The album’s focus is on Benton’s talents, furthering her career, and bringing some music into the world.
Playboy Records folded in 1978, so its heyday was short-lived. Among the records it left behind, however, is this gem by Barbi Benton. I would like to think time won’t forget it, its simplicity, warmth and humor.
Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel (1974)
John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges (1974)
Rush’s Self-Titled Debut Album (1974)
Sly & The Family Stone’s Small Talk (1974)
Elvis Presley’s Good Times (1974)